To write is to encounter continual surprise.
Even those of us who plot scrupulously, maintain note cards with excruciating details of our principal characters’ habits, gestures, obsessions, or plan a careful arc of increasing dramatic tension, climax, denouement – even we (ok, they) get surprised.
The idea for this chapter struck me — in one of those rare and delightful moments – as a bolt from the blue. It came from nowhere. When I was in the shower. An idea that had never occurred to me before blazed through my mind, and I understood immediately how well it fit into the novel-in-progress, how economically it conveyed an ever-increasing complexity of feelings and tensions inside the main character.
Originally, I had the idea that this chapter would be considerably longer than it currently is. I conceived of it going into lots more detail about the sex itself, and what went on in the character’s mind before/during/after that sex. The following version was written as a sort of schematic, almost like an outline that I intended to keep filling in. But, surprise! The schematic turned out to be everything that was needed. I think.
By the second week of December, my Lady felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a twenty-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.
Dan continued to spend long, lazy days in the kitchen, carrying on animated conversations with himself while he fussed over his bean concoctions. This charmed her immensely in September; by mid-December the noisy stream of words made her seriously question his sanity as well as provoking the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at full attention.
The ticket had been purchased – the ticket for the airplane that would whisk him away to tropical paradise for all of the brutal winter that lay ahead. January 4th. He would be gone, poof. Madeline teetered precariously on the brink of wondering how she could possibly tolerate three more weeks of his off-key humming, his utter failure to get her jokes, his flossing ritual. When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss, knowing the absurd amount of time that he would be gone set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.
In the evenings, the two of them would sit together on the sofa. Sierra and the baby dozed together in the Boy’s old bed upstairs. Marie worked one of her two jobs, or ran hither and yon trying her best to manage her own and several others’ lives. Dan invariably began his kneading of Madeline’s thigh, or his massaging of each individual finger – a perpetual motion machine of continual buzzy movement. The sadistic mosquito who senses when you are just about to drift off, and whispers in your ear. “For crying out loud,” Madeline thought to herself. “No wonder this guy meditates. This is a man who hasn’t known one moment of stillness in his entire life.”
She set her jaw against his very existence, calculating how she would bear the number of minutes until she could suggest that they call it a day, go upstairs for the night. At least the flossing ritual would offer her peace. And then, the solace of a lonely sleep, with Dan’s inhumanly perfect profile on the pillow beside her.
Madeline sighed. She rested her hand on Dan’s thigh for a second – a friendly gesture – and told him she was heading upstairs. “Be right up,” Dan said, without turning his head from the TV. “I want to catch a bit more of this, if you don’t mind.”
Madeline was out of the room when she said, over her shoulder, “not a bit.”
When Dan entered the bedroom, she was idly leafing through a magazine. In a different mood, she would have endorsed this particular journalistic effort as a “guilty pleasure,” a concept and a reality which she wholeheartedly supported. Tonight, leaning against the tower of pillows on her bed, she despised its banality, its endlessly recycled topics meant to appeal to the dark recesses of shame and anxiety amalgamated into the creature known as the American Woman. Which meant, of course, that she hated herself for reading it. For falling prey to its sunny, adjective-laden, exclamation-point-heavy!!!, bold and stylized font loaded B U L L S H I T about how to eat, dress, exercise, cut, coif, bleach, dye, tweeze, think, and talk as one’s best possible self, including, needless to say, fucking like a goddess.
“Are you in for the night?” Dan asked her.
“Yup.” She pretended intense concentration on her hated rag.
Dan switched off the overhead light, and began to undress. He undid his pants, which were baggy enough that they dropped immediately to the floor. Madeline unconsciously looked up at the sound of their thunk against the wood. She was confronted with the silhouette of his body, naked now from the waist down. Somehow the fact that Dan did not wear underwear – ever – still gave her a thrill, like an exquisite finger had touched a spot deep inside her belly. “God fucking damn it,” she thought to herself.
Dan crossed his arms, grabbed the sides of his shirt and pulled it over his head, rocking his hips first forward – just slightly — and back again along with the movement of the shirt as it climbed his abdomen, his chest, and down his arms to the reaches of his fingertips. He gathered his clothes from the floor, and stood in the dim light of the room with such an utter lack of self consciousness or guile that the ridiculous word “swoon” actually flashed across Madeline’s mind.
As if pulled by some string attached to that inner finger, Madeline’s foot inched up towards her other knee and fell to the side, leaving her legs open, wide, facing toward Dan.
Sometimes it is a smell, the particular angle of the sun’s light, the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of our life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost. In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.
It was years before. Her still-husband Dick had come – had made an appointment to come — to the house while the children were at school in order to gather some of his things. She had not known exactly what to do with herself, and had gone into the bedroom to escape, to stay out of the way of this stranger she had married to for more than 20 years.
He came into the bedroom. He asked some question or other.
She had no idea what it was. The slight stoop of his shoulders she had not noticed before. The fact that he wore his glasses all the time these days. The awkward boyish uncertainty that made him speak just a bit too loud. The words were out of her mouth without her own knowledge, it seemed.
“Dick. Let’s make love.” And when thought re-entered her head, she added, “Please.”
Her leg had moved up, her knees had fallen open, into that exact position as the words escaped her mouth.
Dick sighed. “I can’t.” He shook his head and looked at the floor. “I just can’t.”
“Twenty-one years, Dick. Twenty. One. Years. I have no idea, no memory, of the last time we made love. It seems like this is something I should have. We should have.”
He sighed again, shook his head again, looked suddenly much smaller, much older.
“You mean because of her.”
Dick said nothing.
“That’s what you mean, isn’t it. You mean because of her you will not make love with me. With your wife.”
“I don’t want you to think for a second that our marriage unraveled because of her. I can’t have you think that.”
“That’s an interesting choice of words. You can’t have me think that.”
“Madeline, for god’s sake.”
“It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask. To know it will be the last time. To have a memory of it.” She added, “ We are still married, you know. Meaning that you’re already a cheater. Meaning that if you’re trying to avoid thinking of yourself as a cheater, well, too late.”
Dick walked out of the room and left the house.
Madeline remained on the bed, in the position with her legs open, for a long time.
That’s not what happened.
That was what a large part of Madeline had wanted to happen. Part of her still wanted to believe that the man she had spent the past twenty-some years with was somehow an honorable man, a man who had strayed into a new love, and who had declared his undying loyalty to it, in the same way that he once had to her.
The truth was this. The minute her knee dropped, her legs parted, she called out her still-husband’s name, “Dick,” — who had come in to ask one question or another –he took one step closer to the bed. And then he took another.
She remembered the tentativeness of their first touches. The awkward reaching of their tongues, venturing for the first time in a long while inside the surface of one another. Her head awhirl in a cacophony of recalled experience, a blur of lightning-quick images. The two of them making love. Fucking. Doing both at once.
“Dan,” she said. “Come here.”
She ran her fingers lightly along the underside of his penis from the base to the tip and back.
He leaned his head back and said, “Ah, Madeline. Your touch.”
That’s not what happened.
She and Dick did not make love. She would never know, would have no memory, of the last time. A tear ran down her cheek into the pillow. She wiped it away to the sound of Dan’s gentle snore.
art, top to bottom: Goya. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bela Czobel
2 Replies to “A Look Behind the Scenes: Writing “War, and Peace””
I get this. The ‘surprise’ is in discovering, through your writing, how you really think and feel about yourself through the development of your characters. It’s kind of the same way we tend to reinvent and reinterpret our own personal history as age and experience bend perspective. All of life is but invented fiction 🙂
Writing ideas can appeal to us anywhere, as you say… even when we’re trying to get to sleep! 🙂